New Ideas, Old Ideas

Nicholas Humphrey

  • Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity by Gregory Bateson
    Wildwood, 238 pp, £7.50

At the end of his life, the distinguished biologist C.H. Waddington took part in a discussion about the nature of mind. The circumstances were unusual. Waddington lay flat on his back, and his words were read from a prepared text by a friend. The discussion between him and the other two participants was lively: until, that is, there came a point when Waddington, having momentarily silenced his colleagues, abruptly left the room. The platform on which he was resting sank beneath him and his body was committed to the flames.

Gregory Bateson, if he had been present at the Edinburgh crematorium, would no doubt have felt sad at the death of his old friend. Yet he would surely have relished an event which in so many ways illustrated his own philosophical obsessions: his concern with birth, death, rites of passage, communication, meta-communication, mind, nature, and especially with the logical status of these things. Here, if there ever was one, was an example of a ‘metalogue’: a mind, in the presence of minds, discussing with other minds the nature of mind. And here was a fairground of conceptual paradox. Waddington was dead, and yet in both body and mind he was still present in the room. Waddington’s life was at an end, and yet his ‘karma’ (Bateson’s word) would continue to rain down like ash on the mourners as they left the crematorium and is raining on this page right now.

Bateson himself nearly died during the writing of this book. But, having survived a serious illness, he went on to produce what his publishers now call his major life’s work. It is a work which, as Bateson readily admits in the last chapter, is far from finished; he has not, as Waddington had not, found final answers to the problems which perplex him. If it should happen that these two remarkable thinkers meet again, then I hope – for the sake of any of the rest of us who may join them in Elysium (and none, I imagine, would want to join a club which did not admit these two as members) – that they will continue the debate. Maybe, when no longer threatened by a deadline, they will make a better job of it than Bateson does in Mind and Nature.

Bateson’s theme is that biological evolution is itself a mental process. That this theme is, as the publishers announce on the dust-jacket of the book, a ‘startling’ one, few would deny. But no less startling is the logical sleight-of-hand by which Bateson tries to persuade us to take the proposition seriously. His argument rests fair and square on the fallacy which logicians know as affirming the consequent. It runs like this. If something is to be called a mental process, it must have certain properties (which Bateson lists); evolution has these properties; therefore evolution is a mental process. In just the same way, one might argue: if it is Christmas Day, there will be no postal delivery; there is no postal delivery on Sunday; therefore Sunday is Christmas Day.

The properties which Bateson lists as ‘criteria of mind’ – a mind is an aggregate of interacting parts, mental process requires circular chains of determination, etc – are uncontroversial and on the whole well-chosen. To those readers who are not already thoroughly familiar with these mental properties, his discussion of them may at times prove illuminating. But when Bateson goes on to argue that because evolution – not to mention (as he does) life, ecology, the biosphere – also has these properties, evolution (life, ecology etc) must be the same kind of thing as mind, it amounts at best to a mere verbal conceit. At worst, it amounts to a piece of moral blackmail. The strong implication of Bateson’s argument (though he does not state it explicitly) is that if the whole of organic nature is imbued with qualities of mind, then we as human beings should treat nature with the respect due to a human mind. There are, I know, good reasons for not cutting down the Amazonian forests: but the idea that such destruction is equivalent to psycho-surgery is not one of them.

There may well be real parallels to be drawn between the workings of mind (in the usual sense) and the workings of natural selection. Bateson is right to insist that concepts drawn from the behavioural sciences may provide useful metaphors for thinking about evolution. For example:

My theory may be described as an attempt to apply to the whole of evolution what we learned when we analysed the evolution from animal language to human language. And it consists of a certain view of evolution as a growing hierarchical system of plastic controls, and of a certain view of organisms as incorporating this growing hierarchical system of plastic controls. The Neo-Darwinist theory of evolution is assumed; but it is restated by pointing out that its ‘mutations’ may be interpreted as more or less accidental trial-and-error gambits, and ‘natural selection’ as one way of controlling them by error-elimination … Error-elimination may proceed either by the complete elimination of unsuccessful forms (the killing-off of unsuccessful forms by natural selection) or by the (tentative) evolution of controls which modify or suppress unsuccessful organs, or forms of behaviour, or hypotheses.

But Bateson is not right to present these ideas as if they were new ideas for which he himself can take the credit. The quotation above, which neatly summarises part of his argument, is not in fact from his own book but from Karl Popper’s celebrated essay ‘Of Clouds and Clocks’, published 14 years ago.

The question of whether Bateson is saying anything new arises still more obviously when he comes to discuss the reverse side of his thesis, namely that mind is an evolutionary process. Intellectual progress, Bateson argues, depends like biological progress on selection from a pool of novel possibilities. But novelty must arise out of randomness: ‘without the random there can be no new thing.’ New ideas when they first arise have no direction, just as genetic mutations have no direction; only once they have come haphazardly into the world can they be tested for their fitness in terms of their coherence with the existing body of thought, and of their compatibility with the external environment.

Now, in case the reader should think that this idea of Bateson’s has come haphazardly into the world, compare William James in 1880: ‘I can easily show that throughout the whole extent of those mental departments which are highest … the new conceptions, emotions, and active tendencies which evolve are originally produced in the shape of random images, fancies, accidental outbirths of spontaneous variation in the functional activity of the excessively unstable human brain, which the outer environment simply confirms or refutes, preserves or destroys – selects, in short, just as it selects morphological and social variations due to molecular accidents of an analogous sort.’ Or Mach in 1895: ‘The disclosure of new provinces of facts before unknown can only be brought about by accidental circumstances … From the teeming, swelling host of fancies which a free and high-flown imagination calls forth, suddenly that particular form arises to the light which harmonises perfectly with the ruling idea, mood or design. Then it is that that which has resulted slowly as the result of a gradual selection, appears as if it were the outcome of a deliberate act of creation.’ Or Souriau in 1881:

We know how the series of our thoughts must end, but not how it should begin. In this case it is evident that there is no way to begin except at random. Our mind takes up the first path that it finds open before it, perceives that it is a false route, retraces its steps and takes another direction … By a kind of artificial selection, we substantially perfect our own thought and make it more and more logical.

In an important essay on evolutionary epistemology, D.T. Campbell (1974) has listed 26 previous statements by different authors of the same idea.

If it could be claimed that Bateson in this book had presented a set of old ideas with novel force or clarity, there would perhaps be some excuse. As he himself rightly says in a chapter on multiple versions of the world, ‘Two descriptions are better than one,’ as in the case of binocular vision, where two eyes, seeing the same scene from slightly different points of view, add a third dimension to the image. But when the monocular version, such as Bateson’s book provides, is, as I see it, frankly astigmatic, it is not obvious that it deepens our perception of the issues.

The text of the book is so unfocused, and many of the ideas so cockeyed, that it requires from the reader immense (and sometimes fruitless) effort to see what it all means. While apparently writing for a general audience, Bateson employs technical jargon with an abandon I have seldom encountered even in the densest scientific prose. He uses familiar words in strange places (‘the elephant … is addicted to the size that it is’), and strange words (pleromatic, exoteric) in places where familiar ones would do. He delights in archaisms (saw – for a wise saying, atomy – for atom) and in ugly neologisms (creatural, characterological, stochasticism). And he deliberately lays verbal trip-wires for the reader: ‘Science, like art, religion, commerce, warfare, and even sleep, is based on presuppositions.’ Even sleep? The shock, I suppose, of non-recognition.

But one of the risks a writer takes in making his reader work so hard is that the reader will keep working even when the writer has not adequately prepared the ground. If Bateson’s text says, ‘The buzzer circuit (see Figure 3) is so rigged that current will pass around the circuit when the armature makes contact with the electrode at A,’ an attentive reader is surely entitled to be puzzled when he cannot find an electrode marked A in the figure. If the text says, in talking of acoustic beats, ‘The phenomenon is explained by mapping onto simple arithmetic, according to the rule that if one note produces a peak in every n time units and the other has a peak in every m time units, then the combination will produce a beat in every m×n units when the peaks coincide,’ the reader is entitled to think twice about m×n and to conclude that Bateson has simply got it wrong. And once the reader has realised that he should distrust Bateson’s circuit diagrams and his arithmetic, he may be alerted to the fact that he should also distrust Bateson’s science.

Perhaps it would be pedantic of a zoologist to object to the statement that ‘salmon inevitably die when they reproduce’ (after all, a fair number of female salmon do die after spawning). But a psychologist will justifiably object to the pseudo-scientific statement: ‘With the dominant [left] hemisphere [of the brain], we can regard such a thing as a flag as a sort of name of the country or organisation that it represents. But the right hemisphere does not draw this distinction and regards the flag as sacramentally identical with what it represents.’

Still, in the midst of this pretentious and muddled book Bateson occasionally reveals a disarming humility. ‘Epistemology,’ he says, ‘is always and inevitably personal … What is my answer to the question of the nature of knowing? I surrender to the belief that my knowing is a small part of a wider integrated knowing that knits the entire biosphere or creation.’ It’s all right, Bateson, you can put your hands down. No need to surrender. That particular belief has no fire-power in it whatsoever.